Listening Landmarks are in boldface.
Rossini: Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers
(about 9 minutes long)
Imagine that it’s 1813 and you’re in Venice. You’ve somehow scored tickets to the Opening Night of Gioachino Rossini’s hot new opera, The Italian Girl in Algiers. Everyone is talking about the exciting, new, 21-year-old composer, who has composed eleven operas already. In the past year alone, he’s premiered six new operas. As you sit in your prized seat, the overture is about to begin!
An opera overture is the orchestral introduction that begins the performance, before the singing begins. It sets the tone and the mood for the opera the audience is about to experience.
Rossini claimed to have written this entire opera in eighteen days, and this may even be true. The premiere of The Italian Girl in Algiers firmly established his reputation, marking the start of his meteoric rise to fame all over Europe, to the point that the popular novelist Stendhal even compared him to Napoleon.
You have almost certainly heard Rossini’s music before, even if you think that you haven’t. His William Tell Overture is often used on TV commercials. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville is the overture to The Barber of Seville, another wildly popular opera. Those two works, along with The Italian Girl in Algiers, are Rossini’s most frequently performed operas. And, in the 23 years he spent furiously writing operas, he composed an amazing 39 of them.
As a teenager, this Italian composer had become so obsessed with Mozart and Haydn that he was nicknamed ‘The Little German.’ In fact, this Overture begins with a tip of the hat to Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, which had premiered 22 years earlier.
On that note, when the overture begins, watch the bows. You will see that they are not used. The string players are plucking their strings, in patterns of six notes. This pizzicato serves to lull the audiences, making the sudden entry of the entire orchestra with a loud chord all the more startling, just as Haydn lulled, then startled, audiences in the Surprise Symphony.
The oboe then presents the first of two tunes, in a quiet, somewhat reserved orchestral accompaniment. Very soon, though, the pace quickens, while the volume remains quiet, with the strings’ quick scurrying passages suggesting a restrained manic energy.
Another nickname Rossini earned is for something noticeable, in this concert’s Overture: ‘Monsieur Crescendo’. Most Rossini overtures start off quietly, then get louder and louder, building up to a big, exciting finish. This overture is no exception. He used this technique so often that it came to be dubbed the ‘Rossini Crescendo’. It’s something for which he was both praised and criticized.
It feels like the orchestra is being held back, but wants to race ahead, which builds anticipation in the listener. About halfway through the overture, both the pace and the volume are finally allowed to slowly start to build.
Note how both the gradual increasing of the tempo and the Rossini Crescendo, sustained over several minutes, effectively increase the energy and excitement of the music. There really is a reason why he used it over and over–it works every time.
And now we jump ahead 104 years, to 1917, to Ottorino Respighi, who apparently rather enjoyed Rossini. We know this because Respighi based the music of his ballet, La Boutique Fantasque (The Magic Toyshop), on piano pieces written by Rossini.
Respighi: Ancient Airs & Dances, Suite No.1
(about 15 minutes long)
What does this Suite have to do with Galileo? Yes, the astronomer of Bohemian Rhapsody fame. It turns out that Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, composed many popular songs and lute pieces in the 1500s.
Believe it or not, the four movements of this twentieth century are based on Italian music of the sixteenth century. One is based on a song of that era and the three others were originally written for the lute. One of those wonderful lute pieces was composed by Galileo’s father.
While you listen to this suite, you may notice that it sounds as though it was written much earlier than 1917. This year – the same year that the United States entered the Great War in Europe, and Italy had been at war for two years on multiple fronts – is when this suite premiered, in Rome, and the full orchestral score mysteriously went missing. Respighi had choice but to reconstruct the full score, by rewriting it, using the individual instruments’ parts.
The reason that this Suite doesn’t sound like it’s from the early twentieth century is because Respighi wrote it in a nineteenth-century style, using even more ‘ancient’ 400-year-old, Renaissance lute pieces.
You might think that this seemingly old-fashioned approach might have made the work unpopular with the 1917 audience, which considered itself modern. Quite the contrary—delving into and reinventing the musical heritage of the audience’s Italian ancestors was considered somewhat avant-garde. This reinvention of ancient source material also tapped national pride in Italy’s enormous influence on the evolution of Western music, in which composers from Florence, Milan, and Venice had been in the vanguard.
What Respighi did, in this instance, was to keep the tunes and harmonies from the original Renaissance pieces, then weave them into something fresh and new, using the modern instruments of the orchestra.
His innovative approach has ensured that this Suite has always been one of Respighi’s most frequently performed works. In fact, the premiere was such a success that he went on to write two more Ancient Airs and Dances Suites, which premiered in 1923 and 1932. His fascination with music of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and with the history of his homeland are also evident in the setting of some of his other most popular pieces, the huge orchestral tone poems, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals.
Each of the four movements uses a different combination of only a portion of the instruments of the orchestra. Note which instruments are not playing, and consider how adding them into the mix would change what you hear. Respighi used these smaller ensembles within the orchestra to keep the overall texture of the piece light and airy, and to capture the delicate colours of the original Renaissance dances and song much better than the full force of the orchestra would.
The 1st movement is under three minutes long and is based on a popular piece written by Simone Molinaro in 1599, called Ballo detto ‘Il Conte Orlando.’ (The called ‘Count Orlando’) Listen for who plays the tune, as it is passed from instrument to instrument. How does the tune changing between major and minor keys, as well as tempo changes, alter the mood? This shortest movement ends by repeating the opening section.
The first three movements use this A-B-A form, with something different sandwiched in the middle.
The Galliarde (a popular athletic dance, which includes jumping), at the beginning and end of the 2nd movement, is the one written by Galileo’s father, in the 1550s. In the middle is another dance by an unknown composer, which features a drone (where the same low note is held, while the tune plays above).
For the nearly 6-minute-long 3rd movement, the Villanella (composed in the late 1500s) begins and ends slowly and sadly, with many long, sustained notes (since the song was a setting of a character’s dying words from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso). Listen for the harp, in the lovely sparse orchestration. This song’s composer is unknown, as is also the case with the contrasting, lively Italiana dance, in the middle B section.
The Passo mezzo e mascherada, the Fourth movement, alternates between two melodies, which are also from anonymous lute pieces. A Passo Mezzo is a lively folk dance, and a Mascherada is a party dance. In contrast to the languid Third movement, the tunes are passed around quickly, each time to a different combination of instruments, with variations added each time, building towards an energetic and high-spirited finale.
Mendelssohn: Symphony No.5 Reformation
(about 33 minutes long)
This is the second full symphony, written by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, when he was just 21 years old. So, why do we call it Number 5? Because this symphony wasn’t actually published until 21 years after his death.
Schumann called Mendelsson him ‘The Mozart of the nineteenth century’. Liszt called him ‘Bach reborn.’ Queen Victoria even described Mendelssohn as ‘The greatest musical genius since Mozart.’ He wrote his first full symphony at age 15, by which time he’d already written thirteen symphonies for strings.
This second symphony was intended to be premiered at a huge 1830 Berlin celebration of the 300th anniversary of an important event in the Protestant Reformation, the presetation of Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V by Martin Luther. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn caught the measles from his sister, Rebecka, and was consequently unable to complete the symphony in time for the event.
Another sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, also an accomplished composer in her own right, who dubbed this work the Reformation Symphony, after the Protestant Reformation, which this work was intended to celebrate.
This symphony finally premiered in Berlin in 1832, two years late; however, by six years after its premiere, Mendelssohn refused to allow it to be performed again. He had decided that it was merely a poorly written work, which he had written in his youth. He even said that he thought that it should be burnt! The symphony was not performed again until 1867, 20 years after Mendelssohn’s death, then the following year, it was finally published.
Listen for these Landmarks of Note
You’ll hear a few seconds of silence between each of the 4 movements.
A slow and stately introduction sets the mood. Just under three minutes in, the orchestra becomes very quiet. The strings shyly come in, with a simple six-note tune. The first note is held, then the strings play four notes going up the scale, then repeat the top note.
This simple tune is known as The Dresden Amen, a popular tune, first sung by church choirs in Dresden in the early 1800s. This same tune is quoted in works by many other composers, including Bruckner, Mahler, and even Wagner, who used it as his Grail Motif in his last opera Parsifal. (Indeed, Wagner privately admitted to his wife that he had borrowed this, as well as bits of some of Mendelssohn’s other music, for his own compositions.)
The Dresden Amen is interrupted by the brass, with a short, martial six-note fanfare. Following this interruption, the Amen is quietly repeated. Then the whole orchestra launches into a dramatic section marked ‘Allegro con fuoco’ (meaning ‘Briskly with fire’), which is reminds one of Beethoven. As the music speeds up and becomes increasingly frenetic, listen for The Dresden Amen again (around the nine-minute mark), to put out the fire and calm things down.
Movement 2 (13 minutes in)
This movement begins with a scherzo in triple time. Being so much lighter and more playful, it makes a huge contrast to the more serious 1st movement. In a traditional symphony, either the 2nd or 3rd movement are always in triple time, like a waltz. Listen for the trilling of the high woodwinds, like birdsong. This charming movement is more often performed on its own, than is this symphony as a whole.
Movement 3 (20 minutes in)
The first violins sing the tune in this short and sweet movement, while the rest of the orchestra gently accompanies them. This singing movement is often compared to a vocal aria or a song without words.
Movement 4 (21 minutes in)
A flute solemnly sings the tune of Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God, which forms the basis for this whole movement. Gradually, other instruments join in. What follows are several boisterous variations on this tune. In the midst of these variations, you will also hear The Dresden Amen several times, but upside down (going down the scale) and played quickly. These variations are interrupted when the entire orchestra joins in, to play this hymn together, slowly and majestically, rising to a huge, dramatic long final chord.
Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.
He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.